While the recall efforts of Councilman Mike Zinkin did not succeed, some are calling the independent investigation into his actions vindication.
After allegations that Zinkin had sexually harassed several female employees on several occasions during the last 17 months, the town hired the Phoenix law firm Squire Sanders to investigate the allegations and make recommendations for how the town can create a safer work environment for employees.
The $8,520 report recently became public, with both sides of the issue ready to move forward.
“The report was worth it because it shows the mayor and council that these things aren’t just going to go away and be swept under the rug,” said Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath. “This report will allow us to take steps to make sure employees feel more comfortable with speaking up and they are safe. We want this report to help us gain more credibility with our employees.”
According to the report, authored by Laura Lawless Robertson, a total of four Oro Valley employees testified to hearing Zinkin make inappropriate comments to female employees and about Mexicans during meetings held over the last 17 months.
“I express no opinion as to whether there are forces that influenced the timing of these allegations, I did find all of the witnesses to be credible and sincere,” Robertson said in her final analysis. “Though the degree to which they were willing to share their experiences varied, each person interviewed seemed sincerely committed to improving the quality of life at the town and to ensuring a safe, healthy work environment.
“That said, there is ample corroboration that (Zinkin) has made at least several inappropriate comments of a sexual nature or regarding persons of Mexican national origin that have troubled town employees and possibly third parties as well,” the report continued. “The bulk of these corroborated comments were made 17 months ago.”
Zinkin, who has repeatedly said he meant no offense by any comments he may have made in the past, said he is happy with the report and is ready to move forward with making positive changes.
“I think the recommendations were valid,” he said. “Obviously, it’s important to be educated on current laws and look at how we behave. I am ready to move on and put this behind us.”
Hiremath said the findings in the report is vindication.
“As a whole, I am gratified it countered all of (Zinkin’s) claims that this was just hearsay,” he said. “This is true vindication for the female employees who had to go through this. He did make these remarks to these women and about Mexicans.”
The report stressed that there have been no recent incidents of Zinkin acting inappropriately, which Hiremath said he takes exception to.
“The report stated several times that (Zinkin) is getting better,” said Hiremath, who came out in favor of recalling Zinkin over the allegations. “Getting better means you are still doing it. Either you comply with (the council code of conduct) or you don’t. As an elected official, you have to hold yourself to a higher standard.”
Robertson said all the witnesses who testified, including Zinkin, appeared to be genuine in their statements.
Much of the report centered around Employee A, as names of the alleged victims were withheld in the report. According to Robertson, Employee A reported concerns about Zinkin’s behavior to Town Manager Greg Caton in June 2012.
Employee A told the investigator that she approached Zinkin to inquire about an email from her regarding a work-related matter. The two discussed a report she had filed, where she said she was not a “pushover” and stood by figures as reported.
In response, Employee A said Zinkin said words to the effect of, “I know you are not a slut.”
Employee A said she was offended and used foul language back at Zinkin.
Two other employees reported similar behavior from Zinkin over the last year.
While Employee A did not file a formal complaint with Caton in 2012, after news of the allegations was made public at the end of 2013, she did move forward with filing a formal complaint.
Employee A said she also heard Zinkin make inappropriate comments about Mexicans in her presence.
A formal complaint was filed against Zinkin by an employee with the Oro Valley Police Department, who is identified in the report as Employee D, in October 2012.
During a strategic-planning meeting, Employee D alleges that Zinkin made comments to the effect that she looks better than the male ranking officer who previously performed the duties Employee D is now performing.
Employee D said Zinkin’s comments were unusual, and that she did take offense to his remarks.
The employee later became fearful of losing her job because she spoke up about feeling uncomfortable about his comments.
Robertson said while Caton acted appropriately in speaking to Zinkin after each of the alleged incidents over the last 17 months, the town can still do more to protect its employees in the future.
‘Because the council member is not an employee and is instead an elected official, the town is unable to implement traditional forms of employee discipline, such as oral or written warnings, demotions, or termination” Robertson said. “On the other hand, the town has an obligation to provide a work environment that is free from unlawful harassment for its employees. The town has responded appropriately, with due regard to these dual considerations, with the town manager and mayor counseling the council member about appropriate workplace communication, by the town manager issuing written memoranda to the council member regarding the same, by intervening proactively to prevent off-color remarks where they are anticipated and by implementing protocols to minimize direct one-on-one interactions between council members and town employees.
“Although these steps have not completely eliminated comments deemed inappropriate by town members, they have resulted in a significant decrease in their frequency to only two corroborated incidents in the past six months.”
Caton said having a third-party conduct the investigation is important to the town’s future operations. The town manager said it’s important to review procedures he took to decrease harassment as town manager and to create better policy moving forward.
“We wanted to review what we had done, and in a sense, bring closure to the issue,” said Caton. “The report brought us some good recommendations that we are looking at.”
Caton said some time in April or May, he will bring some policy recommendations to the council for approval.
Following recommendations in the report, Caton said they will look at implementing a code of conduct that will be mandatory for employees and voluntary for members of the council.
Caton and Hiremath both said the issue at hand is that the council’s code of conduct is voluntary, which makes it tough to punish if policies are violated.
“There are no repercussions we can take when a council member violates the code,” said Hiremath. “Really, all we can say is we are going to try to make things better at the council level. That’s the best we can do.”
Caton said the town will also review current policies and make suggested amendments to make reporting harassment to the town manager, implement in-person harassment training for staff and council.
Zinkin has voluntarily taken several harassment classes over the last year.